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Coffey Park residents gather to observe fire anniversary

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Walking over broken sidewalks and past half-built homes, Coffey Park residents gathered Tuesday evening for a fire remembrance that exhibited both sorrow and joy.

Roughly 500 fire survivors and supporters stood in silence in the heart of their northwest Santa Rosa neighborhood while names were read and a small bell jingled for neighbors who had died one year ago in the Tubbs fire, the most destructive in California history.

Later many broke into cheers and applause after Coffey Strong President Pamela Van Halsema spoke of a day when their neighborhood will be made whole again, “and we’re going to sit on these front porches we’re building and we’re going to greet each other by name, because we know each other now and we can call each other friend.”

The October 2017 wildfires claimed 24 lives and 5,300 homes in the county. In Coffey Park, the historic Tubbs fire on Oct. 9 killed five people and destroyed 1,321 single-family homes.

But this spring, the neighborhood rebounded as it became the center of rebuild activity in the county. By the end of September, 21 Coffey Park property owners had completed 21 new houses and another 520 homes were under construction.

Both residents and outside observers spoke Tuesday with a touch of awe at watching what they suggested was a deeper display of community, one forged through shared hardship and a joint resolve to rebuild.

“I get the chills, what I’m feeling here,” said Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore, standing on a closed section of Hopper Avenue near Coffey Lane.

In comparison, Gore said, Monday’s countywide anniversary commemoration in downtown Santa Rosa had been mostly quiet and respectful. But Tuesday’s gathering, he said, had an infectious sense of hope.

“I hear joy and chatter,” he said, listening to the people around him before the program began.

Afterward, Randon Way resident Ellisa Andre was no less struck by what had transpired.

“I’m just amazed at our community,” she said. “What neighborhood is like this?”

It has been a year like no other for Sonoma County, and Coffey Park has been on display as both a place of fiery destruction and a resilient neighborhood where hundreds have chosen to rebuild.

On Tuesday, families and small groups could be seen walking together for blocks through the neighborhood — apparently heeding Coffey Strong’s suggestion to park beforehand at their own homesites. Along the way, neighbors waved greetings to each other. One passerby said cheerfully to a family eating dinner in the garage of their half- completed house, “Getting closer, huh?”

On Sumatra Drive, Cody Walker was finishing off a burrito dinner at his cleared lot before walking to the observance. He and his wife, Monique, said they look forward to their rebuild starting soon for their family with five children.

Walker said he was convinced the shared disaster brought him closer with his neighbors. He recalled calling some of them the night of the fire to make sure they had escaped the flames. Later, he helped a neighbor search the rubble of his burned lot for a wedding ring. When the ring was found, the two men embraced.

“I think the walls have come down literally and figuratively,” Walker said.

Some fire survivors said the anniversary observance had special meaning for them, but they could understand if others might find such a gathering too difficult to attend. Jim Scally said he is in a much better place emotionally on the fire’s first anniversary because his contractor just started building his foundation at his lot on Crimson Lane.

“Today would have been a really tough day if I didn’t have anything done on my home,” Scally said.

During the gathering, Van Halsema said residents needed to remember what they endured “has been really hard, and it’s really sad, and it’s taken a toll on each and every heart in this space.”

Times of suffering or feeling vulnerable may still lie ahead, she said, “but we’re going to carry each other through.”

When asked what she would remember about Tuesday’s event, Moocha Lane resident Darby Davy replied, “Feeling the love.”